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October 8, 2006
A Split In Teheran?

The visit to the US by former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami had approval from the highest levels of government, the London Telegraph reports, and it served a clandestine American purpose. The US contacted Khatami on his trip to carry a message back to Iran's Guardian Council, the real power of the Islamic Republic, in an attempt to manuever around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The Bush administration made secret overtures to former Iran president Mohammed Khatami during his visit to the United States last month in an attempt to establish a back channel via the ex-leader.

American officials made the approach as part of a strategy to isolate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Khatami's hard-line successor, by using the former president as a conduit to the Iranian people.

They also hoped that Mr Khatami would report his conversations to senior members of Iran's theocratic regime who are wary of the current president. Diplomatic sources said that "third parties" were authorised by Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state responsible for relations with Iran, to talk to Mr Khatami in a step towards "engagement" with senior Iranians.

The clandestine contacts with Mr Khatami reflect a significant shift in American policy, away from preparation for military action and towards increased diplomatic pressure on Iran, which is defying United Nations demands to suspend its nuclear programme.

The Telegraph reports this as a change in policy from a war footing, which seems a bit unlikely to me. The Bush administration has never prepared the country for war against Iran, and for good reason. Iran presents a much more difficult target for military action, even for limited strikes on its military and industrial infrastructure. It has little open territory, unlike Iraq, and Iran has dispersed its nuclear development assets specifically to resist such an attack. The White House has constantly resisted the temptation to escalate the Iranian standoff into a military crisis, preferring to allow the Europeans to drive the diplomatic efforts instead of taking charge ourselves.

It does represent another change in direction, however. The Bush administration has often tried to speak directly to the Iranian people and encourage them to remove the theocracy that controls them. In order to maintain support for democracy activists in Iran, the US has carefully tried to stay clear of engagement with the current regime. This back-channel opening to the mullahs through the supposed reformer Khatami looks like an abandonment of that principle to a more realpolitik approach of arm's-length engagement with a distasteful regime that we know to oppress its people.

Did the Axis of Evil suddenly get kindler and gentler, or did all of the other options fail? It seems like the latter more than the former, especially since -- as the Telegraph reports -- it looks like the mullahs don't trust Ahmadinejad, either. This does provide some opportunity to see if the Guardian Council wants to step back from the brink and minimize the threat posed by its hand-picked populist president. If the rumors are true, it's possible that the mullahs seriously underestimated Ahmadinejad's ability to grow his own power base, and now see a threat from the formerly obscure radical they placed into the presidency.

Also, the White House may simply be keeping all of its options open. Khatami's invitation may have provided an unforeseen opportunity that they grasped. Nothing in a simple behind-the-scenes contact requires the US to back away from democratization in Iran, and we have no assurance that Khatami even delivered the message. The bad publicity that resulted from his temporary visa may convince the White House that further engagement with the Iranian mullahcracy may not be politically possible at the moment, and they can easily drop that course at any time.

I'm skeptical of the Khatami mission. The mullahs may have some problems keeping Ahmadinejad from eclipsing their power, or they may not, but the main source of anti-American fervor still resides on the Guardian Council. It would be nice to believe that they have a rational outlook on governance and foreign policy, but so far they have done little to demonstrate it.

UPDATE: Michael Ledeen remains very skeptical. In the comments on this thread, Michael says:

[T]he idea of "the mullahs" trying to work around, limit, or oust Ahmadi-Nezhad is as fanciful as the older idea that "the mullahs" were being challenged by Khatami "the reformer." They are all members of the same cult. There's a person in that country whose job description is "supreme leader." And it's not Ahmadi-Nezhad. It's Khamene'i.

That doesn't appear to have changed much since 1979.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 8, 2006 9:56 AM

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